What should I know about transitioning my ground to organic?
According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic products in the U.S. have grown from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $39 billion in 2014. Domestic supply of organic grains is not keeping up with growing demand from the organic dairy and poultry sectors, resulting in increasing imports of organic corn and soybeans. According to USDA, approximately 75-80% of the organic soybean and 40-50% of organic corn were imported in 2016. Organic processors and handlers are seeking domestic supplies in order to reduce dependence on imports. This presents opportunities for farmers who are interested in diversifying into organic grain production.
Transitioning to Organic Takes Time
Transitioning acreage to organic grain production takes time. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards require a three-year transition following the last application of a prohibited substance. This includes most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, GMOs, and other inputs as defined in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (CFR 205). Many farmers explain that the process of developing a productive, sustainable, organic crop rotation often takes additional years as the soil ecosystem and the farmer’s management shifts to a biologically driven production system. During the transition, yields will likely decline as the system shifts away from chemical-based fertility and weed management. But, over time, yields can return to levels that compete with conventional yields.
Understand the Organic Market
Marketing is crucial to success in organic grain farming. Forward contracting is common, particularly with food-grade crops. Price discovery can be a challenge, so take time to talk to buyers and other organic farmers. Over the last decade, organic grain crops have generally received a premium of two to three times conventional prices. The latest USDA National Organic Grain and Feedstuffs Report (https://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/lsbnof.pdf) shows feed grade yellow corn at 8.00-9.75, soybeans at 16.75-18.50, and wheat at 6.40-8.00 per bushel. However, don’t let the financial premiums be your only driver.
Organic farmers are rewarded these price premiums because they take on additional risks with organic production—navigating the 3-year transition process, challenges with weed management and consistent yield, and entering a new marketplace. Seasoned organic farmers make it clear that you need to identify other motivating factors—the financial reward will not be enough to keep you on track with transition and certified-organic grain production for the long term.
Technology is limited but some is available
Transitioning to organic production does not translate to an abandonment of technology. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides will no longer be in your toolbox, but the latest technology with GPS guidance, VRT, and more will still apply on your organic acreage.
If you are thinking about transitioning acreage to certified organic grain production, consider the following:
- Don’t bet the farm. The entire farm doesn’t have to be in organic grain production; fields can be transitioned in a phased approached over time, and you can maintain a “parallel” or “split” operation. Look at it as a diversification opportunity.
- Transition your best fields first – fields that are fertile, well drained, and close to the home farm. Take time to learn the system, and see if organic management works for you and your team before transitioning more acreage.
- Diversify your crop rotation; include cover crops and hay/pasture in longer rotations. Sustaining a rotation that only consists of row crops (corn, beans) is possible, but will be very challenging over time to maintain adequate weed control and fertility levels. Meeting Nitrogen demand of corn will be particularly challenging. Cover crops and hay/pasture will help with weed management, soil building, nitrogen fixation, and disruption of pest life cycles.
- Develop a holistic/integrated/adaptive approach to weed management. Herbicides (at least economical ones) are no longer in your toolbox. Learn about weed populations on your farm, their lifecycles, and recognize that mechanical weed control will be required. No-till can be a part of your rotation, but has not been proven for all row crops, particularly corn.
- Develop a business plan for navigating the transition, and find a lender that understands organic or is at least willing to work with you through the process. http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Organic-Transition
- Study the NOP standards to understand what’s required in organic production—This includes the National List of allowed and prohibited substances, recordkeeping and organic system plan requirements, crop rotation standards, and more. https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic
- Develop and maintain a recordkeeping system, which is required for certification. Many resources are available to help you develop such a system. g., https://mosesorganic.org/publications/farm-production-recordkeeping-workbook/
- Find an accredited certification agency. You can work with any USDA accredited certifier, so “shop around”. https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/organic-certification/certifying-agents
- Develop a support network. This includes your certifier, Extension educators and specialists, seasoned organic farmers, other transitioning farmers, input dealers, and consultants. As you enter this new marketplace and community, it will take time to make connections. Contact me to for help in making connections.
- Commit to transition for more than financial reasons. If conventional grain markets take another turn up, or you inevitably run into the tough year(s) where weeds win out in a given field (or fields), you might be lured to drop your organic certification or give up on transition. Having additional motivators beyond the price premiums in the organic marketplace is important. The book “Gaining Ground: Making a Successful Transition to Organic Farming” is loaded with testimony and quotes from Canadian organic farmers about their reasons and challenges and rewards from going through transition. https://cog-shop.myshopify.com/products/gaining-ground-making-a-successful-transition-to-organic-farming-ebook
The post was written by Michael O’Dennell with the Purdue University Extension. If you have further questions about organic farming, please contact Michael.
Extension Educator, Organic and Diversified Agriculture